At a recent Wednesday night Bible study session, we were looking at the story of the Last Supper in the gospel of Mark. Several people in the group asked, “Is this about communion?”
Over the last two thousand years, Christians have tried to figure out just what Jesus meant when he said, “This is my body. . .this is my blood.”
Did he mean it literally – an actual change from bread to flesh, and from wine to literal blood? The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches believe that this is a miracle which happens during the Mass, though they disagree about exactly when the change (or transubstantiation) takes place.
Most Protestant churches believe that the bread and wine remain the same, but that Christ is present with us in some way (consubstantiation).
Some groups celebrate communion frequently – devout Catholics and some Protestants hold communion services every week (Catholic priests celebrate communion every day). Others hold communion less often – once a month, or several times a year.
There are four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and each of them describes the Last Supper differently. In John’s gospel, Jesus commands his followers to wash each others’ feet. Again, some churches do this once a year on the Thursday before Easter. As part of the celebration, even the Pope makes a point of washing the feet of poor people, prisoners or people in the hospital.
Other churches, especially the Mennonites and Brethren, include foot washing as a part of every communion service.
Disagreement over the meaning and practice of communion has sometimes led to violence and even war between different groups of Christians, who are convinced that their way is the only way.
Quakers are one of the few Christian groups which doesn’t celebrate an outward, physical communion service. (One of the other groups is the Salvation Army.) Quakers have always insisted that the inward, spiritual experience of communion and baptism are what really matter.
And while many Quakers feel comfortable joining the Lord’s Supper when they visit other churches, we have insisted that taking communion, or any other sacrament, doesn’t save people. What saves us, we believe, is a complete change of heart, living in faith, and following the teachings of Jesus.
Instead of setting aside a special group of people to be priests, Quakers insist that everyone is a minister. Instead of setting aside special times for communion, Quakers feel that Jesus is present anywhere, any time and in every place – one of our favorite Bible verses is Matthew 18:20, where Jesus says, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Christ can be present any time – during Sunday worship, at grace around the table at home, in an earnest discussion in Sunday School, during a work day or a fish fry, by a hospital bed, or walking together with a friend. Christ is here with us, among us and beside us, invisible but just as real as can be.